Suicide attack on Imam Bargah in Shikarpur shook rural Sindh that had remained immune to such scale of savagery to a large extent. Portentous developments during recent years were alarming enough to take a critical stock of affairs in the Province but who would take notice of such developments in the Province, and for that matter, in the whole country.
The Shikarpur carnage affected the liberal image of rural Sindh. Traumatized Sindhis drew complacency from the fact that the suicide bomber was not a native as Sindhis try to find anything positive about themselves in almost everything.
Rural Sindh had once a rich tradition of tolerance and respect for plurality. At the time of partition when communal riots engulfed the country, Sindh did not witness horror scenes of communal violence. There were sporadic incidents, yet the fabric of society generally remained intact.
Districts of north Sindh are home to a sizeable population of Hindu community. Local communities respected each other’s faith and social norms. These areas, however, faced a spate of delinquency of all kinds during recent decades such as tribal feuds, kidnapping for ransom, abduction of Hindu girls, honor killings, murders, road robberies, rise of religious groups and sprawl of completely unchecked madrassa network.
During past two decades, successive governments, for their vested political interests, have virtually fragmented Sindh into feudal fiefdoms. Tribal lords in these districts are known patrons of hardened criminals. Their fiefs straddle adjacent provinces that provide safe havens to criminals from both sides. Once they cross the provincial boundary, local police ensconce with ease.
The districts of north Sindh flanked by east Balochistan and south Punjab, namely Sukkur, Ghotki, Khairpur, Shikarpur, Kashmore, Jacobabad and Kambar-Shahdadkot have emerged as dens of notorious criminals. Their proximity to the two provinces provides a safe corridor to hardened goons who rule the triangle without any interference of otherwise jealously guarded writ of law.
Administrative machinery inter alia the police department has been made subservient to the whims of chieftains as a reward for their allegiance to the incumbent governments. Rule of law has been fettered by moribund tribal courts. A subjugated administration fortifies the clenched fist of tribal chiefs. In spite of Supreme Courts decree against tribal courts, they operated with complete impunity.
In cahoots with sitting ministers and high level police officials, tribal lords brazenly run this illegal and atrocious archaic justice system and openly deride formal judicial system. May it be a martial law or an elected regime; tribal oligarchy enjoyed its uninterrupted hegemony. Routine administrative machinery is preoccupied with servility and no honest official is allowed to function in these areas.
This tyrannical rule of lawlessness provided fertile ground to extremist forces to sneak into these areas. Their pernicious entry manifested through a fast unwinding chain of seminaries, targeting of Hindu community and parental refusals of polio vaccine.
In 2013, Health Department of Sindh reported an alarming 23,723 refusals during polio vaccination campaign. Most of these refusals were noticed in the districts of upper Sindh, mainly Shikarpur and Kashmore. Refusals were also reported from Pakhtun community enclaves of Karachi and Jamshoro districts.
Whereas refusal by Pakhtun communities followed an understandable pattern, much baffling was permeation of this alarming trend among native Sindhi families. Refusing parents were never dealt with due seriousness and the ominously changing complexion of society was completely ignored by the provincial government and other relevant entities. A timely action could have forestalled perilous designs of terrorists and had potentially stymied the gruesome consequences.
In the aftermath of Swat operation of 2009, Sindh witnessed a major influx of internally displaced people from the upcountry. Political parties and civil society of Sindh forewarned that terrorists evading army operation would have sneaked in the guise of affectees. The government, however, dismissed the demands for a mechanism to sift out heinous elements from the real affectees.
Terrorist outfits fully exploited this heaven sent opportunity to find a toehold in Karachi. The city thus plunged into a new wave of chaos. In addition to ever bleeding wounds of ethnic warfare and inexorable street crime, the city has been brought to its knees by sectarian violence and suicide attackers. In 2010, a suicide bomber blew up himself at the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi, killing eight persons. It was followed by a series of incidents of terrorism targeting devotees and caretakers of shrine, polio vaccination teams, police personnel guarding vaccinators, doctors, traders and Shia community.
Terrorist groups also made Karachi a new base to mobilise finances through kidnappings for ransom, extortion and bank heists. Concurrently, terrorist also nestled in the towns and villages of north Sindh.
Infestation of extremists in rural Sindh made itself conspicuous through a series of incidents. Shrines of Hajan Shah and Pir Hussain Shah were targeted in Shikarpur and Jacobabad in 2013. In 2013, a suicide bomber attempted to kill a tribal and political leader Ibrahim Jatoi in Shikarpur. In 2010, more than two dozen NATO trucks and tankers were torched in Shikarpur. Polio vaccination teams were roughed up in Khairpur district. Last year, two Ahmadi community men were killed in Nawabshah. Ahmadis were also targeted in Tando Allahyar, Badin and some other towns of Sindh. Hindu girls were abducted and forcibly converted. Temples of Hindu community were vandalised and torched in various towns.
Toxic graffiti started appearing in various towns including Khairpur, the home constituency of the Chief Minister of Sindh. Clerics openly thundered during religious congregations and pronounced sectarian minorities to be apostate, infidel and liable to be assassinated.
An indolent, corrupt, incompetent and self-indulgent government of Sindh remained indifferent and turned a deaf ear to alarms raised by civil society and political parties of Sindh. It simply shrugged off every criticism and termed it an anti-democracy campaign. State of denial persisted within official corridors that paved way for proliferation of extremist groups in the province. This is how north Sindh gradually transformed into a microcosm of FATA.
This changing complexion of Sindhi society has emerged as a major challenge for political and civil society of Sindh. Attempts for penetration of religiosity in rural Sindh met tough resistance in the past.
A deep-rooted nationalist and cultural movement had been a bulwark against invasion of religious elements in the province. Iconic nationalist leaders like GM Syed, Haider Bakhsh Jatoi, Rasool Bakhsh Palijo and others led a strong secular Sindhi nationalist movement. The PPP that dominated political landscape of rural Sindh had also been a relatively progressive and liberal party. Sindhi literature, poetry, music and media promoted strong secular values. Because of this societal outlook, Islamabad-based establishment often purported Sindhis to be lesser Muslims and non-patriotic.
Nationalist and secular movements in Sindh restricted religious parties to Karachi who could not find any space in rural Sindh. Sentiment against religious political groups further sharpened when a conglomerate of religious parties launched movement against a much revered Sindhi leader Z.A Bhutto. His execution not only alienated Sindhis from the state affairs but also deepened abhorrence among them for religious parties, whom they considered responsible for bolstering Gen. Zia’s xenophobia. The trend persisted till Musharraf’s regime.
However, since 2008 when the PPP assumed power in Sindh after 12 years, it invested all its energies in land grabbing, money minting and trading jobs and contracts. As against all aspirations of Sindhis, corruption, nepotism and lack of merit have gripped the province. On the other hand nationalist parties also lost their luster due to weak leadership and opaque character.
Failure of governance, discredited opposition parties and listless nationalist movement together created a vacuum that is being fully exploited by extremist elements to make inroads in an unwelcoming territory. In addition to these factors, spiraling extremism in Sindh also enjoys patronage of a sections of security establishment. In some of the high security border districts, security apparatus monitor all developments with an eagle eye, yet seminaries flourished unhindered in those areas.
Vanguards of proscribed religious groups conveniently frequented these areas to carry out proselytisation campaigns. Their network sprawled and activities gained momentum during recent years. A flippant attitude of government will let the extremism fester in Sindh. Exorcising the ghost of extremism will be an excruciating process.